Celia: a work of feminist public history

In anticipation of the Melbourne film festival, Mary Tomsic reviews Celia, a film that explores a young girl’s life in Australia in the 1950s.

Ann Turner’s 1989 feature film Celia will open the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival’s program on Pioneering Women.

It will be a rare chance to see this captivating vision of feminist public history on the big screen.

Celia (played by Rebecca Smart) with her pet rabbit, from Celia (1989; Ann Turner). Image courtesy of Ann Turner.

Celia is set in the late 1950s, in suburban Melbourne and tells the story of nine-year-old Celia Carmichael. The story is set around Celia’s family home and that of her neighbours, the Tanners, as well as her school and the almost surreal environment of a local quarry where the children play unsupervised by adults. In the film we see a history told from a young girl’s perspective, within domestic and familial realms, where we see politics played out on a personal and everyday level, as well as the impact of influential women in her life.

I remember being taken to see Celia along with the rest of my year level at school in the late 1980s. One of our classmates played Celia’s friend, the silent Heather Goldman, who is traded between Celia and her cousin Stephanie at times when the children’s allegiances are being restructured. I was captivated by this film, it took me out of my daily school life and into a young girl’s life in Melbourne which was somewhat recognisable but also starkly different to my own.

Historian Robert A. Rosenstone has said:

We do not go to the Hollywood historical film for data but for drama. For the way it intensifies the issues of the past. For the way it shows us the world as process, makes us participate in the confusion, multiplicities, and complexities of events long past.

Through viewing Celia then, and now, I saw the past from the perspective of a young girl. I vicariously entered her world, influenced by politics, personal relationships, as well as place and time. I also saw Celia’s understandings of these forces and the place of imagination in her daily life.

A rabbit drive on the Woods’ family farm, Mansfield, circa 1927. Image via Museums Victoria.

In terms of history specifically, Ann Turner takes us to a range of pasts in Celia. There are multiple historical layers – some more directly present than others. Most explicitly we are taken to the late 1950s in suburban Melbourne. We see the Cold War conflict, communism and left-wing politics in action. These concerns play out in many ways: one is in a lounge room meeting observed by children. We also witness the rabbit plague in Australia and government responses to it, including restrictions on pet rabbits, which threatens Celia’s beloved rabbit Murgatroyd and prompts Celia’s political statement at school.

We can also consider Celia as a history of childhood. The basis of that though is perhaps more in Ann Turner’s personal history, rather than the 1950s in which the film is set. We see both the intimate and vicious way in which children’s gangs operate. Celia befriends her new neighbours, Karl, Meryl and Evan Tanner, who along with Heather Goldman, form a close group. There are vicious battles fought between them and other children, whose group is led by Stephanie Burke. In creating these relationships, Ann Turner has said she looked to her own childhood in which there were many close friendships as well as gang wars. The seemingly contradictory elements of friendship, bitter hatred and extreme love are exhibited simultaneously in Celia. This is also based on Turner’s memories:

Our emotions were very intense: we either liked people enormously and would die for them, or we held them in a position of extreme dislike and they were enemies … Our games were often very violent … At the time it often seemed funny rather than violent’. (Ron Burnett, “Take the Bunny and Run, Memories of Childhood and Ann Turner’s Celia,” Cinema Papers, no. 72 (1989): 9.)

The dark and terrifying children’s story of The Hobyahs features in the film. Hobyahs are mysterious creatures, and the tale is one about danger, death and failure to heed warnings. The story has Scottish origins and was published in Victorian school readers from 1926 until 1952; from 1930 onwards it was in the Second Grade Reader. The story was read in class and Celia is haunted by the hobyahs. Throughout the film we see the ways in which this impacts on her understanding of her world and influences her actions. While the place of imagination in history writing is complicated, in Celia we are reminded of the significance of interior life, and it has prompted me in my own work to think creatively about how I can analyse the influence of culture on people’s lives.

Bicentennial medal presented to school students in presentation folder, photographed by Taryn Ellis. Image via Museums Victoria.

There is also the broader historical context of Celia’s creation and release in 1989. The bicentenary of Australia in 1988 was a national event, a ‘Celebration of a Nation’, marking 200 years of a non-Aboriginal presence in Australia. Alongside the festivities, there was criticism and protest of what was to be ‘celebrated’ in Australia’s history, particularly in terms of race relations. Cultural diversity and multiculturalism also featured in public policy at this time. The Hawke Government produced the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia (1989) while at the same time activist groups such as Australians Against Further Immigration sought to limit migration and keep ‘Australian’ culture alive. In the context of this particular public debate about the nation and its history, Celia’s interrogation of political ideologies is significant.

The various histories referenced in Celia are interwoven into an enthralling narrative, one that takes children’s experiences as serious and significant. Ann Turner’s film thus focuses on daily suburban life in which historically specific gender, family and political relationships intersect with imagination and emotion in Celia’s world.

A new digital version of Celia, created through the National Film and Sound Archive’s Restores program, will be shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The Pioneering Women series showcases ‘a selection of amazing and sometimes under-seen Australian should-be classics directed by women and made in the 1980s and early 1990s’. It includes the work of filmmakers such as Tracey Moffatt, Nadia Tass, Laurie McInnes, Ana Kikkinos, Susuan Lambert, Clara Law, Mary Callaghan and Gillian Armstrong. The Melbourne International Film Festival will run from 3-20 August.

Mary Tomsic is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Melbourne working on a project titled ‘Picturing Child Refugees’ as part of the ARC Laureate Research Project ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism: 1920 to the Present’. She co-edited Diversity in Leadership: Australian women, past and present (with Joy Damousi and Kim Rubenstein, ANU Press 2014) and her book Beyond the Silver Screen: A History of Women, Filmmaking and Film Culture in Australia 1920-1990 will be published by MUP in October this year.

Follow Mary on Twitter @mary_tomsic.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA holding a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at auswhn@gmail.com.au

This entry was posted in Event review. Bookmark the permalink.